Venture outside the hard lines of the city into the exurbs and beyond, and you often confront a depressing blandness rather than bucolic majesty. While the population may lack a clear identity, it’s exactly this fringe, with a permeable perimeter where laws can be bent and the peculiar seems plausible, that is ripe for odd encounters.
It’s that liminal space that author John McManus mines, exploring a disturbing yet familiar landscape of bullies, addicts, fractured fools and lost souls. In the nine short stories that make up the collection “Fox Tooth Heart,” McManus doesn’t shy away from the ugliness that exists outside our car windows, off the interstate exit ramp or in that shoddy strip mall.
Just as Dorothy Allison detailed in “Bastard Out of Carolina,” McManus is interested in the “they” that are disparaged by the elite. But now the disenfranchised of the New South has sprawled — just like most Southern cities — beyond the confines of the working poor to include a litany of other undesirables caught in a web from which it seems impossible to wrestle free.
McManus confronts that reality most directly in the story “The Gnat Line.” One of the most structurally complex and brutal to digest, it details the lives of seven men, all registered sex offenders, who are forced to live in a tent city in a small tract of land in Acworth because the law forbids them from residing within a one-fifth of a mile from places where children might congregate.
As McManus explains in his spare, matter-of-fact way: “In the mountains and cotton country the circles stood alone, but Atlanta’s overlapped in cascades and formed tiny islands shaped like boomerangs, narrowed to inches or confined to commuter lots and the inner lanes of I-75.”
We would never choose to join this cohort, yet McManus manages to find empathy for this ragtag bunch of guys who work jobs driving a MARTA bus, at the World of Coca-Cola or selling cars when they’re not debating why Michael Vick is worse than them for wrecking the Falcons’ chance at a winning football season with his dog-fighting scandal.
Against all odds, when their tenuous existence is threatened, McManus has surprisingly mustered enough glimmers of humanity from this unlikable group that it’s hard not to root for redemption for at least one of these men.
Not all of the stories are outside the realm of everyday reality. For parents confused how their brilliant, beautiful gifted sons can so quickly transform into malcontents, “The Ninety-Fifth Percentile” taps into teenage lust and rage, confusion and heartbreak to expose the delicate balance that privileged youth face on a daily basis.
A stunning opening line propels the story forward: “The day the Honduran boy showed back up in American History instead of vanishing with his deported parents, Caidin Maddox convinced his friends Jeff and Adam to follow him home from school.”
That boy, with the mellifluous name Juaco Luna, becomes the catalyst that sends Caidin, perceived as supremely gifted since he ostensibly tested above the 95th IQ percentile, on a downward spiral as he silently battles his sexuality. The yearning Caidin feels is heartbreaking, especially when he tumbles into cliché ways to handle it: first by bullying his peers, then fast cars and drugs.
It all takes place in a Houston enclave before hurricanes Katrina and Rita strike and change everything. But as with most of us, it’s the small personal battles, rather than an epic climactic maelstrom, that dominates his life.
Although a few of the stories aren’t physically located in the South, McManus — originally from Knoxville, Tenn., and a writing professor at Old Dominion University in Virginia — infuses each one with the drab landmarks of the sunbelt: soy bean fields edged by trailer parks and strung together by fast food chains, pawn shops and gas stations. Anyone who has felt the enormity of all that space will recognize the sublime terror of these tales.
All the stories are from white male points of view except for one, the titular character in “Betsy From Pike,” about a young, white Kentucky woman who is perhaps the most victimized of all the protagonists. These are the expendable lives not typically singled out from the masses that pile up and don’t appear to amount to much so it’s easy to ignore them.
Just when you feel like you’ve managed to kick through the currents of despair, keeping your head above it, McManus hits you with the achingly visceral “Blood Brothers.” Nothing can prepare you for this final, haunting story. Luckily he saves it for the end, since readers may run away before they could stomach its grotesque beauty.
A masterpiece that channels a meth addict’s stream of consciousness, the story centers on two men who bond during a deadly drug bender in rural Tennessee. The narrative buzzes with propulsive adrenaline until I felt as jumpy as the paranoid narrator as he continues his wild trajectory. After the quasi-glorification of meth use in “Breaking Bad,” this story crackles with hideous accuracy. At the finale, we are left trapped outside the gates of Dollywood, on the fringes, feeling helpless and sinking into the inevitable muck of America — yet with a sputtering spark of hope.
‘Fox Tooth Heart’
by John McManus
220 pages, $15.95